Adam Hochschild has a thing for rebels. So it will come as little surprise that the 77-year-old’s latest book is a biography of Rose Pastor Stokes, who was born in the Russian Empire in 1879, made her way to the United States, married into money, and put her newfound resources toward fighting for workers’ rights. In March, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes.
The book, Hochschild’s ninth, marks his first straight biography. It comes after a memoir (1986’s Half the Way Home, about his strained relationship with his father) and a string of historical works. He’s best known for the latter—specifically the four histories he’s written on movements for social justice. There’s his 1998 work about the early-20th-century campaign to end slave labor in the Congo (King Leopold’s Ghost), his 2005 book on the struggle to abolish slavery in the British Empire (Bury the Chains), his 2011 examination of the pacifist protests against WWI (To End All Wars), and his 2016 look at American volunteer brigades fighting against fascism during the Spanish Civil War (Spain in Our Hearts).
Sitting at his desk in the Berkeley, Calif., home he shares with his wife, Arlie Russell Hochschild (a sociologist and fellow author), Hochschild says Rebel Cinderella is, in his mind, more a “joint biography.” The second subject is Stokes’s husband, Graham Stokes. An idealistic upper-class reformer, Graham married Rose Pastor in 1905. They were, to put it mildly, from different sides of the tracks. She was a Jewish immigrant who began working in cigar factories at age 11. He was a WASP, and a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families. The press went wild over the union, and the couple used their celebrity to support radical causes until they divorced after WWI, which he supported and she opposed.
Hochschild was drawn to Stokes and her husband in part because of their fairy tale romance. “It was fascinating to write the story of a marriage between people from worlds so different you wouldn’t believe it in a novel,” he says. The couple also ran with quite the crowd; in Hochschild’s estimation, they entertained some of the most notable people of their era. “If you think about the most interesting people alive in the United States in the first 15 years of the 20th century, almost every single one of them was a friend or house guest or acquaintance: [Socialist Party of America leader] Eugene V. Debs, [muckraking journalist] Lincoln Steffens, [anarchist activist] Emma Goldman, [radical labor organizers] Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn... The list goes on and on. Rose and Graham were at the center of all this.”
Rebel Cinderella shares with Hochschild’s previous books a sympathetic view of activists proposing radical social change. “I can’t think of anything more interesting to write about than people struggling to make a better world,” Hochschild says. “There’s something dramatic and emotionally interesting when someone is moved or shocked by something they see, and it takes them out of themselves.”
Hochschild’s voice rings with conviction as he describes his mission. He has an activist background himself. His early years as a journalist were spent at Ramparts magazine, and he also cofounded Mother Jones in the 1970s. He still writes the occasional article or opinion piece; he and actor/director Ben Affleck cowrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last year urging continued foreign aid to the Republic of Congo. The two met about 10 years ago, when Affleck was launching a foundation to support economic and social development in Congo, and he has held an option on the film rights to King Leopold’s Ghost for some time.
“I hope it’s going to be a movie,” Hochschild says. “But having the rights and actually having it reach the screen are two different things. I’m delighted Ben Affleck is involved, because I respect his commitment to the Congo. He has made that long-suffering country the focus of his philanthropy for the last dozen years and has spent a lot more time there than I have.”
King Leopold’s Ghost marked a turning point for Hochschild. For that book—which has, according to HMH, sold more than two million copies (in print and digital) in North America alone—he focused on making history feel as immediate as journalism. “It occurred to me that a fascinating form in which to do a book would be to find a resonant episode and then draw portraits of people connected with it on all sides: as perpetrators, victims, observers, and bystanders,” he says. “I realized this was a really fascinating way to tell a story—through a collection of characters who are all connected.”
Publishers didn’t respond, though. When Hochschild’s agent, Georges Borchardt, submitted King Leopold’s Ghost, nine editors passed on it. John Sterling at Houghton Mifflin was the exception. Although Sterling left the house shortly after editing King Leopold, Hochschild remained; he’s been at HMH for two decades now, having struck up a long-standing editorial relationship with Bruce Nichols, senior v-p of the publisher’s general interest group. “He has a special feeling for history,” Hochschild says of Nichols. “And he always seems to understand what I’m trying to do.”
Hochschild is currently working on a book about the First Red Scare, a period stretching from 1917 to 1920, when law enforcement officials led by Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer arrested thousands of labor organizers and other activists and deported 249 foreign-born radicals. Hochschild has, in fact, already published on the subject; his article “When America Tried to Deport Its Radicals,” based on his early research for the book, ran in the Nov. 11, 2019, issue of the New Yorker.
That Hochschild is still active as a journalist is unsurprising, as he still relies heavily on his skills as a reporter. “When I was a daily newspaper reporter, out interviewing people, you’d hear one striking thing and think, ‘That’s my lead! That’s the phrase I can build my whole story around,’ ” he says. For Rebel Cinderella, he found all sorts of those phrases in his subjects’ letters. “Those are the gems you’re always looking for.”
Hochschild’s in that process, of looking for gems, all over again. “Right now, I’m plowing through informers’ reports [on activists under surveillance during the First Red Scare],” he says. “And I’m still looking for the phrase that leaps out to reveal something about the speaker and his prejudices and about the people he’s observing.” He pauses. “It feels like the same thing I did as a 22-year-old reporter.”